Alarm bells are ringing in newsrooms and experts raise their eyebrows. Research shows that fake news stories on Facebook generated more public interest than top stories from major news outlets in the United States in the run-up to the presidential elections.
Analysts at BuzzFeed News found that in the final three months of the campaign, the 20 top performing hoax stories generated more than 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.
In the same time, the 20 best performing election stories were lagging behind with a total of 7.4 million engagements on the leading social media platform. That’s about 15% less than for the fake news.
Latest figures from Switzerland show that social media have also played an increasingly important role over the past seven years. Researchers at the Institute of the Public Sphere and Society at Zurich University found that these media account for nearly a third of the overall news consumption - up 10%. This is the case notably among younger female consumers.
Stefan Klauser, project leader digital media at Zurich’s ETH institute takes a pragmatic approach.
“Technology can be used differently. Notably to spread an opinion and influence others. Some companies are powerful enough to do this,” Klauser says.
“It is all about money and power,” he adds.
From the viewpoint of a researcher, Klauser says those affected by any major technological innovation go through a three-step process. The first reaction is denial, followed by protest or opposition.
“The advantages of the new technology become apparent in the final stage. This is when other players, be it the media or other companies, begin to make use of the technology for their own means," said Klauser at an international conference on direct democracy in San Sebastián.
He is confident that quality journalism has a future in the age of social media even though there are still plenty of question marks about the best way to tackle the issue.
Some media professionals and scholars believe the answer to the problem could be more regulation.
“Not a particularly good idea,” says Klauser, because it often takes a very long time to implement new laws and regulations. In addition, there are always ways to dodge the rules, he adds.
It would not be right to deny people the possibility to use the media, as long as they adhere to basic legal standards.
“People need a space where they can express their emotions and opinions.”
Otherwise, they feel censored and controlled. As a result they might choose other means to express their opinions through other channels.
So what practical advice does Klauser have for the media and for those who want to continue to produce quality journalism?